My sewing machine thread breaks. What do I do?

I recently received this comment on one of the earlier articles in my blog, about tension adjustments for sewing jeans:

I have a commercial machine and I’m using a 18 needle but the thread breaks. It sews about three stitches and breaks, but when I put it on a thin material it looks beautiful. Can you tell me what I’m doing wrong.

Here is a checklist to help solve the problem. I tried to arrange it roughly in order from simplest fixes to the more involved ones. And since the reader was asking for help with an industrial machine I’ll try to take that into account as well.

Starting with needle and thread:

  • Try a different needle, same size. The needle you’re using might be defective in some way, such as burrs at the tip or being bent.
  • Try a different bobbin. Again, the bobbin you are using may be defective, or the bobbin may be wound incorrectly.
  • Are you using the same thread on top and in the bobbin? You should.
  • Are you using cone thread, rather than spool thread? Industrials are meant to use cone thread. Cone thread is wound in cross-diagonals, and when used on industrial-style thread feeds the thread unwinds without twisting.
    If you put a regular spool of thread on an industrial thread spindle, it will gradually twist while sewing and can cause poor stitches and possibly thread breakage. (If you have a home machine, you can use cone thread with an appropriate cone thread holder).
    Here is some additional information on cones versus spools, and when it is appropriate to use each: Thread Delivery System
  • Is the thread the right size for the needle? If you are using a large-size needle and thread that is too lightweight, this can cause stitch problems. You should user a heavier weight thread with a size 18 needle.
    Along similar lines, if you use a topstitching needle, you should use topstitching thread along with it.  A topstitching needle has a longer eye and is intended to accommodate thicker thread.
    Here is an article that discusses the relationship between needle size and thread size in detail: Technical Advice: Needles and Thread
  • Is the thread old? Old thread can degrade and become brittle due to exposure to sunlight or air, and can break when used in the machine. Give a tug on the thread to see how much it can take before it breaks. Sometimes you can salvage a spool or cone of thread by unwinding the outer, brittle layers of thread and tossing them.

Vintage thread makes a great display item, but don’t use it for sewing.

Next, check your machine setup and usage:

  • Always make sure the thread take-up lever is always at the top of its travel when you begin or end stitching. Otherwise, the thread can break, or the needle can come unthreaded. This sounds super simple, but it was a problem I had working with industrials (and mechanical sewing machines in general) before I was properly taught how to use them.
  • If you have an industrial machine, check that the needle is installed correctly. Industrial needles do not have a flat section at top to ensure proper orientation, as home machine needles do. Make sure the long groove shaft of the needle faces to the left (towards the left hand side of the machine) when you install the needle.
  • Make sure the bobbin is installed in the case so that it turns clockwise when you are looking at the open side of the bobbin case and pull on the thread.

Viewed from the open end, the bobbin should turn clockwise when you pull the thread.

  • Make sure the bobbin case is installed in the machine properly. On the Juki industrials I am familiar with, install the bobbin case with the open notch pointing upwards.

This industrial bobbin case installs with the open notch pointing upwards.

  • Industrial machines (and other high-speed straight-stitch machines like the Brother PQ-1500S, Janome 1600P, and Juki TL-2010Q) have lots of little twisty guides and discs the thread must go through, in order to stabilize the thread for high-speed operation. Miss just one of these guides and you can have stitching problems – ask me how I know! Rethread the machine from scratch, and recheck the threading diagram closely.
  • Remove the needle plate from your machine, and with a small, lint-free brush clean up any lint or fuzz that has collected in the bobbin area. Accumulated lint in this area can cause the machine to malfunction.
  • Check your machine for nicks, burrs, or other damage to the needle plate, thread guides, and other machine parts.

Finally, some things that involve adjustments to the machine.

  • Try checking the top thread tension. If the top thread tension is too high, the bobbin thread can break.
  • If top tension adjustments don’t help, try checking the bobbin tension. Here is a test for bobbin thread tension: You should be able to pick up the bobbin case by the thread, and the bobbin case should just hang on without sliding to the floor. If you give a little upwards yank on the thread, some thread should come out of the bobbin case.

Adjusting the bobbin thread tension on a commercial machine is pretty much the same as on a home machine. Here are some articles on thread tension that explains how to adjust both top and bobbin thread tension:

8 thoughts on “My sewing machine thread breaks. What do I do?

  1. Testosterone

    Mr. P.,

    You are living in the cone zone.

    Speaking effortlessly of re-thread dread, whilst giving tension a mention.

    Bet you can trace a diagram sans eye exam.

    You’re just a labor-saving gent, with a tipsters mente.

    THAT man fan

    1. mportuesisf Post author


      Your blog comments have risen to the level of poetry. I am suitably flattered.

    1. mportuesisf Post author

      Thanks, Wil. This article was sort of an accident, as it came in response to reader comments. There are multiple projects I’d love to blog more about but don’t have the time to write, because of time commitments. But I’d like to do more hints and tips articles like this one in the future.

  2. Denise Babin

    This was a wonderful list and I’ll save it for future reference. On a home sewing machine I would add that if you are using topstitching thread a topstitching needle makes a big difference as it has a bigger groove to accommodate the thicker thread.

    1. mportuesisf Post author


      That’s a good point about the topstitching thread and I’ll update the article to make that more clear.

  3. SJ Kurtz / ErnieKDesigns

    I’ve been sewing for years on the same machine and it wasn’t until this year that I found out about the tension discs being engaged by dropping the presser foot. Saying this makes perfect sense NOW, but it just never added up to me why I would get such inconsistent results after threading the beast (I’d drop the foot to thread the needle….uh huh…).
    Now I take off the foot to hit the needle. What a great new machine I have! The automatic buttonhole is a thing of beauty!
    (face meet palm)

  4. Josie

    Great tips.
    New domestic sewing machines will not sew if threaded incorrectly.(bernina). If the thread get stuck in the pesky cut of a plastic spool. You know, on a new spool . The thread will break. Threading the eye of the needle, from left to right on a industrial. My own expwerience. Its worth checking every item. Most often, human error has been my best lesson.
    Not sure if any of this make sense.
    Thanks for sharing


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